By Michael Regan
The Tonawanda News
Tonawanda News — After launching the Gateway Harbor Ball Drop in 2008 as a means to draw local residents to the Twin Cities rather than to nearby municipalities like Buffalo, it has slowly burgeoned into an annual draw.
But now nearing its fifth year, and buttressed by its proximity to roughly 40,000 residents and a growing list of offerings, those in charge of it say they are starting to witness the fruits of their labor.
For years the rag-tag event was almost comical, with the untimely descent of the five-foot ball and its 14 rows of glowing lights never quite hitting bottom at midnight — and leading to the event’s unofficial moniker, “It Ain’t New Years Until We Say It Is.” (They’ve even made T-shirts.)
But that’s changing, according to Deborah Darling, an early member of the group that put it all together. In 2011, the ball dropped on time, as the masses were counting down the final seconds of the year.
“Our ball drop was somewhat of a joke in the beginning because it didn’t go all the way to the bottom,” she said. “We actually liked it, though, because it makes us a little more unique. You never know if the ball is going to come down on time and maybe that’s something that’s a good thing, rather than a bad thing.”
And as logistics have become more organized, the crowds have swelled from hundreds to thousands. The yearly pub crawl has doubled in numbers, family attractions have gained in reputation and business in the downtown corridors of both cities have seen financial incentives.
“Now that we have survived five years it’s growing,” Darling said.
On Wednesday, as crews put the apparatus in place that will hoist the ball at the corner of Webster and Sweeney streets Monday night, Rick Maier, the head of the event, said organizers were finalizing preparations.
It’s been a group effort, he noted, with a legion of interested parties adding meaning to the idea of volunteerism. And that devotion is beginning to pay off.
“I want to tell you that we get 1,500 hundred people but there’s a very good chance that’s it’s getting up to 3,000,” he said of the Gateway Harbor area of both cities, as the midnight hour approaches.
Maier said a evening gala has been brought into the mix this year, which will be held at the Tonawanda Castle, while two “Kids Zone” events for separate age groups have been added at the Salem Church and Rainbow Roller Rink. More food vendors have been brought in as well and the Elks Lodge will return after a devastating fire destroyed the organization’s landmark building last December.
Darling said she and her organization have been searching for a way to broaden their funding options, though with more people participating in the pub crawl — the main funding engine for the event — at eight separate bars in both cities, they are able to look at other possibilities. Maier added that their is one other aim.
“We want to bring the two cities together, that’s our ultimate goal,” he said. “When we look at Gateway Harbor we look at it as one entity, we want to break down the brick wall.”IF YOU GO • WHAT: 2012 New Year's Eve Gateway Harbor Ball Drop • FAMILY FUN: Kids Fun Zones will run from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. at the Salem United Church for ages 10 and under and the Rainbow Roller Rink for children 10 to 15. • PUB CRAWL: 6 p.m. to 1 a.m. at eight bars in the Twin Cities. • SCAVENGER HUNT: Starts at 6 p.m. to midnight at 20 businesses. • GALA: 7 p.m. to 12:15 a.m. at Tonawanda Castle, 69 Delaware St. • MORE INFO: www.gatewayballdrop.com Contact reporter Michael Regan at 693-1000, ext. 4115.